Literary Context as a Philosophical Tool in Plato’s Protagoras
In the Protagoras, Plato offers an example of how to do literary analysis, through Socrates’ analysis in the dialogue of a poem by Simonides. This internal example, and the issues it brings up, may offer insights on Plato’s thoughts about analyzing arguments that appear in literary contexts and may reflect on a possible way to read Plato’s work, as the work of interpretation the reader does necessarily has to take into account the method put forward within the dialogue. Socrates’ literary analysis of the poem in the Protagoras brings forward the idea that the statements of characters exist in a literary context, and that genre and style influence how philosophical ideas are conveyed.  Furthermore, literary context can add something, by its very form, to a philosophical argument that a straight argument alone cannot.
This interest seems immediately applicable to Plato’s own writings, particularly the Protagoras. Here, he presents two opposing philosophical ideas through two different characters, both with their own biases and flaws. This creates, through juxtaposition and plot-action, a more nuanced view that brings the reader as a matter of course into the story, as a literature critic for the purpose of philosophy. In fact, that seems to be a key part of Plato’s basic idea in many dialogues shown through Socrates’ mode of argument, where he engages others in conversation, challenging their views to try to make them come to a conclusion for themselves. It might even be that this activity of the reader is an important part of the philosophical idea—that interpretation and interaction are necessary.
As Socrates and Protagoras discuss the idea of if virtue can be taught or not, (Protagoras starts the discussion saying that it can be, Socrates that it cannot) a discussion emerges that centers around poems, which is here functionally literature. This topic is introduced by Protagoras as, among other things, being able “to analyze a poem and to respond to questions about it” , after which he and Socrates both put forth differing ideas about how they interpret the philosophical argument present in an ode by Simonides.
Protagoras asks if Socrates thinks the poem is well made, and Socrates agrees that he thinks it is. (“Do you think a poem is well made if the poet contradicts himself?” Protagoras asks; Socrates answers, “no.”)  This establishes at least Socrates’ opinion, although Protagoras, importantly, doesn’t seem to disagree. From this opening assumption, Protagoras argues convincingly that two lines in various parts of the poem are inconsistent with each other because they offer different philosophical arguments. Protagoras goes on to conclude that as these selections appear in the same poem by the same author, it means that there is something contradictory in the poem, and that therefore the poet has contradicted himself.  One interesting point that will eventually appear in Socrates’ response to this critique is that there may be a difference between something apparently contradictory appearing in the poem, and the poet as an author actually contradicting himself.
The first section of the poem that Protagoras brings to Socrates’ attention is this: “for a man to become good truly is hard.” The second section is a critique of a proverb by Pittacus: “hard it is to be good, he said,” says Simonides, and that Pittacus’ “proverb [is not] in tune / however wise a man he was.”  The poem seems to start by saying that it is hard to be good, and then goes on to critique a proverb that says it is hard to be good, saying it is wrong.
Socrates agrees, after some thought, that there is what appears to be an obvious inconsistency with what is being expressed in the ode, and he is initially surprised and unable to think of a response—Socrates says everything went black and he felt like he had “been hit by a good boxer”  and he feels like he has to stall for time by bringing Prodicus, who grew up in the same hometown as Simonides, into the conversation.
The argument that Socrates comes up with with Prodicus’ help is that there was a nuance that Protagoras missed in the quotations between becoming good and being good, and that Simonides could in fact disagree with Pittacus and use his own poem to make a fine distinction that was not present in the original work he cites.  Socrates argues that the poem is in fact saying it is hard to become good, but that once you have it, it is easy to be good. Protagoras then criticizes this conclusion as being unlikely, and Socrates tries a different way of reconciling the poem, coming up with his second argument.
In this second argument, Socrates wonders if what Simonides meant by hard wasn’t at all “what takes a lot of effort”  but instead what is bad. Prodicus (the one who cares about defining words) stands up for this interpretation, but Protagoras shows that, if they assume such a particular meaning for “hard”, they soon come to totally ridiculous contradictions in their interpretation of the poem.
So Socrates goes back on that claim, saying it was a joke and a test of Protagoras’ ability to defend his statement,  although it may, like Socrates’ previous ask for Prodicus’ help after Protagoras’ initial criticism, have been another stall for time. At least so far, Socrates isn’t distinguishing himself particularly for the strength of his argument, with his best one being the distinction between being and becoming; this is also the only part of his argument so far that Protagoras doesn’t tear apart easily. He can only criticize as Socrates assuming an ignorance on the poet’s part if Socrates thinks Simonides believes that “the possession of virtue is so trivial when everyone agrees it is the hardest thing in the world.”  While Protagoras may be right, he doesn’t argue convincingly for the view, and this ends up looking like a strange thing to say, and brings up a problem, because Socrates actually uses a quotation from Works and Days to make his point about goodness being hard to gain but easy to keep, so obviously everyone doesn’t think that, and if it’s arguable, then Protagoras’ lack of reasoned argument is a downfall here. In fact, it will be from this argument that Socrates will eventually create his final, most plausible argument about what Simonides could have meant, taking his own idea of the difference between being and becoming along with Protagoras’ point about the possession of virtue not being an easy thing.
It seems that Plato shows that excessiveness in definitions of words can sometimes go too far, even if it’s a helpful thing in a focus on philosophy, through the actions of three characters engaging in this philosophical analysis. When Prodicus is called upon for help in creating a semantic argument that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the sense of the argument, Protagoras is always able to easily break that down (which is kind of ironic, because Protagoras is a sophist, but he seems a lot like a philosopher too, especially in comparison to Prodicus; because Protagoras does seem to care about more than just winning an argument on fine details—wanting, on the whole, the argument to also make sense.)
And, interestingly enough, many of Socrates’ arguments rely on these fine details—especially in this dialogue. It’s a question, especially here in this analysis of the ode, whether Socrates pays enough attention to how much sense the arguments he’s making has. And he seems to recognize that when forgets to do so, he doesn’t always end up with a good argument. This is brought to the fore by Plato at the end of the dialogue as something the characters have noticed, when Socrates says “I beg indulgence of Prodicus who distinguishes among words,” and to “respond to the intent of my question,” and not argue semantics,  at which everyone laughs. What this seeming digression of the poem analysis turns out to add to the dialogue is the focus on the importance of looking to whole arguments and how they are constructed rather than forgetting the larger context and the logic of the argument being made in the work.
Socrates even talks about his view of the best way to interpret a work’s philosophical components, and he says that is to take note of “the overall structure and intention” of the piece.  To understand a philosophical argument in that way, then, would require not just the ability to read and think about phrases or pieces of a work, such as Protagoras picking out contradictory passages in the ode, but in fact require an eye to the whole and what the work seems to be aiming towards; this would also include the literary genre it presents itself in and the conventions thereof.  Socrates says, about genre’s effect on argument, that “the characteristic style of ancient philosophy was laconic brevity,”  and in the spirit of that were sayings that worked, Pittacus’ proverb being one of them. But Simonides, working in a new style, was trying to gain fame by taking down this proverb, adding his own view and context. The reason, it seems, that he was able to do this was because he was working in a different genre, where more explanation and argument was needed and expected.
So the opinion of one line, (or one character?) can’t necessarily be taken out of context and assumed to be the idea of the author, or the idea that the work as a whole expresses. A more nuanced discussion requires critical engagement of the text rather than just reading every word and taking it as the truth. Socrates makes the argument that Simonides was making a philosophical claim contrary to the claim Pittacus used, through his use of literary context. This segues into Socrates’ final argument.
Socrates’ third and final argument attempting to prove that Simonides does not contradict himself, which builds on his earlier ones, argues that what Simonides meant in his apparent contradiction—and what is clear through a larger view of the work—is that becoming good is hard, but being good is actually impossible.  Socrates here says what he thinks those two sections singled out by Protagoras, and the point of the rest of the poem, meant, “to become good truly is hard, and although it may be possible for a short period of time, to persist in that state and to be a good man, Pittacus, as you put it, is not humanly possible.”  This is a very interesting argument, whether or not Socrates was actually right about what Simonides meant, and I think Plato acknowledges the merits of the argument as such, whether or not the analysis should be taken to be correct or not.
But even more interestingly, though Socrates says at the beginning of the dialogue that a work can’t be well made if it contradicts itself, and Protagoras, who he is arguing with, does not disagree, but instead uses that assumption to craft his argument for Socrates. And though Socrates goes to great lengths to prove that the poem in question doesn’t contradict itself, whether successfully or not; the Protagoras ends with both Socrates and Protagoras having contradicted their original position. Even Socrates’ poem analysis ends up contradicting its original position, as Socrates starts off saying that Simonides argues being good is easy, and ends up saying that Simonides argues being good is impossible.
So… is the dialogue well made? Has Plato contradicted himself? It seems impossible not to consider these ideas when they were brought up extensively within the dialogue itself.
Either Plato in effect has argued in this dialogue that his own work is not well made, or there is something further to consider; perhaps Socrates is even wrong in his initial hypothesis that a work has to be non-contradictory in order to be well-made. If that is so, it brings up the question, what would be the purpose of the contradiction? Especially if inserted knowingly, as is clearly the case for Plato, who has Socrates say, at the end of his and Protagoras’ discussion of the teachability of virtue, “it seems our discussion has turned on us, and if it had a voice of its own, it would say, mockingly, … how ridiculous you are, both of you. … Now you are [both] arguing the very opposite [than you were at the beginning of the conversation, and arguing the side of the other].”  They have contradicted their own positions and instead started arguing against them, and for the point that the other started out making. Socrates, who started the conversation saying virtue was not teachable, ended up arguing that all virtue is in fact wisdom—and therefore teachable. And Protagoras, who has good reasons at the beginning of the conversation to insist virtue is teachable, since he says he teaches it, ends up arguing for a model of virtue where it doesn’t seem to be teachable at all.
Might the type of character used to display each claim, and the larger plot context of the story, be used to reflect on the idea and create a different claim that the work as a whole is using? Plato gives the reader the role of another bystander to the dialogue, where they have to be the ones to draw their own reasoned conclusions and puzzle over the questions for themselves, weighing the different arguments not only as an argument but as a dramatic situation, where the actions (and thoughts, if there’s a narrator) of the interlocutors cannot be discounted either. If Socrates’ account of, and model of, literary analysis in the poem is plausible, then it offers a way to interpret Plato. If it isn’t plausible, this casts doubt on his accuracy as a character, who might not be able to be trusted to give the author’s full opinion. This has the same end effect of the reader having to look carefully at the context Plato has created and is working with to decide if a seemingly bad argument is the fault of the writer, or if any contradictions in characters’ arguments with each other is part of a more nuanced argument that suffers if you take snippits out of context, or if Plato is using unreliable characters to make a philosophical point. So Plato teaches you how to do his kind of thing through the very format he writes in.
Even further, perhaps what is being discarded here it is the idea that a work must not contradict itself, if the discussion on the way there was fruitful. This might connect with Socrates’ claim that admitting what you don’t know is the most important thing—maybe more important than creating a good argument that never changes its course in order to avoid self-contradiction, which might also hinder it from ever being able to discover as much as it could. Indeed, Socrates even says in the Protagoras, to Protagoras, near the end, about their main discussion on the parts of virtue, “if this is still your view, say so; if it’s changed in any way, make your new position clear, for I am certainly not going to hold you accountable for what you said before if you want to say something at all different now.” 
Plato, Plato: Complete Works, “Protagoras” trans. Bell, Karen, & Lombardo, Stanley. Hackett Publishing, 1997, US.
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